For Silvano De la Llata, public spaces aren’t simply places we pass through to get from point A to point B.
“Public spaces are the essence of cities,” says De la Llata, assistant professor in Concordia University’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. “[They are] where relentless energies meet, clash, fuse, merge and transform.”
In his view, public spaces have for too long been an urban planning afterthought and a missed opportunity. Even small parks and squares can make cities more vibrant by increasing opportunities for encounters and artistic and political expression. It’s a key aspect of public life in democratic societies, he says.
“Urban sustainability is not only about creating more green spaces, but also about rendering the planning process open to all citizens,” he says. “The city needs to be actively designed by its citizens. The political, economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability are inherently connected.”
De la Llata is one of an innovative group of researchers from Concordia University who are creating a new vision of urbanism, from exploring how planting more trees mitigates climate change to uncovering how public spaces operate as ever-transforming living organisms.
Case in point: Jardins Gamelin, the 400-square-metre garden located inside Place Émile-Gamelin in central Montreal, a verdant patch of paradise in an otherwise concrete jungle.
Jardins Gamelin is more than just a green space, says Charleen Kotiuga, urban agriculture coordinator with Sentier Urbain in Montreal, the non-profit that helps manage the garden. It serves many roles, including bringing diverse communities together to share in its beauty and bounty, she says.
“[And for the] high population of homeless people in the park, having an edible garden helps create food security for the community,” Kotiuga says.
Jardins Gamelin is the kind of place that excites De la Llata. A central focus of his work is examining how communities are re-envisioning public space. One of his current research projects involves working with citizens and stakeholders to co-design public spaces in Montreal. Bridging research, design and pedagogy, the goal of Cities by Citizens (www.citiesxcitizens.com) – the research collective he coordinates – is to explore the role of public spaces and citizen participation in urban sustainability. Public spaces are both the means and the ends for more open and sustainable cities, he says.
Carly Ziter is a team member of Concordia’s Canada Excellence Research Chair for smart, sustainable and resilient communities and cities, which collaborates with more than 75 faculty members throughout the university working on cities-related research. She notes these programs have environmental upsides too, including lessening the impacts of an overheating planet.
An urban landscape ecologist and professor in the Department of Biology, Ziter says her research examines “how all the different bits and pieces of green space across the city – parks, trees, your backyard and bits of forest – work together to create biodiversity and provide benefits to people.” She’s interested in how the re-imagining of the city aims to not only make public space more hospitable and useful, but also more sustainable.
“One of our studies, for example, examined how much we can reduce temperatures through tree planting and where trees are most beneficial,” she says.
Conducted in Madison, Wis., her research team measured temperatures in neighbourhoods across the city. They discovered communities with at least 40 per cent tree canopy cover experienced significant heat reductions during the summer.
Ziter says the work demonstrates how trees reduce the impact of heatwaves on concrete, steel and glass.
“For decades, we’ve understood cities are heat islands in a cooler, rural landscape,” she says. But her research is revealing these islands are like “heat archipelagos,” with some parts hotter than others. Neighbourhoods with more tree cover are the least impacted, measuring as much as 5 degrees Celsius cooler.
This kind of work is proving foundational for many local initiatives like the ILEAU project (Interventions in Local Environment and Urban Architecture), which engages with residents to plant more trees and preserve green space in east Montreal.
Project manager Nilson Zepeda is with the Regional Council for the Environmental of Montreal that heads up ILEAU. He explains that there is a disparity in green space between the east side of the island of Montreal and its west side. The difference has repercussions for citizens.
“The life expectancy, for instance, in the east is about seven to 10 years lower,” he says. While many socioeconomic factors are at play, “a key component is the east side is very industrial with not a lot of green space.”
But De la Llata cautions that urban planners must do more than insert a few trees into an otherwise concrete square. They must think of green spaces as a process of co-creation, he says.
Residents can do their part to help. “Try mowing your grass a little less often to let flowers like clover grow, which can promote native pollinators and other biodiversity,” Ziter adds. Or let leaves remain on the lawn in the fall, creating habitat for beneficial insects.
Small gestures like these can add up, she says.
“It’s all about realizing that together we can improve habitat, diversity and well being,” she says. “And that can be as simple as no longer striving for what’s often viewed as the picture-perfect yard.”
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